Wednesday 30 August 2017

Comfrey From Seed - DO NOT DO IT

During my visit to the Wyevale 50p seed sale I saw and picked up a packet of Comfrey seeds from Thompson & Morgan

I have no intention of growing these seed, I bought the pack to see what warnings if any were on it about how invasive this particular plant is, there are none.

I visited the Thompson and Morgan web site and did a search for Comfrey under more information there is a warning that Comfrey is harmful if eaten and that contact with the foliage may irritate the skin and eyes, with a suggestion to use gloves when harvesting. But there is no warning on how invasive this plant can be.

I then thought I would see how many other seed suppliers, provide comfrey seeds and if they actually warn the purchaser about it's invasive nature. Out of all the seed suppliers listed on the left panel of my blog only D.T.Brown, Just Seeds, Premier Seeds Direct, Nicky's Nursery and supply comfrey seeds.

Of those companies Just Seeds are selling packs from Thompson and Morgan none of them give a warning about how invasive Comfrey is apart from that state under the cultivation heading "Take root cuttings (about 2 inches long) and away you go again. Be careful as the bits left over will happily root wherever they fall". However they completely fail to mention that the plant grown from seed is not sterile and if allowed to flower and go to seed, will spread like wild fire.

The plot next to mine has comfrey all over it, inside the greenhouse and the polytunnel, and is not Bocking 14, the current tenant had no idea what Comfrey was they thought it was just an annoying weed they could not get rid off, until I educated them, what it could be used for and the need to keep it cut and not let it flower and go to seed and spread anymore, as what they have on their plot is quite obviously not sterile.

I feel that providers of comfrey seed have a moral obligation to warn their customers about just how invasive this plant can be. I find it completely irresponsible of any company selling Comfrey seeds not to explain how invasive this plant can be, if grown from seed and not properly and carefully managed.

I salute all the seed companies that don't sell comfrey seeds.

So Bottom line, whatever you do DON'T GROW COMFREY FROM A PACK OF SEEDS

So what is the alternative?  "Bocking 14" is a cultivar of Russian Comfrey, this strain was developed during the 1950s by Lawrence D Hills, and is the preferred type as it is sterile and can only be grown from root cuttings so it's not going to take over your plot from seeds spreading.

Sources for Bocking 14 root cuttings in the UK are

It's also sold on ebay but one has to ask is it really Bocking 14?

Sources for Bocking 14 root cuttings in the USA

More Reading

Tuesday 29 August 2017

Clearing a New Allotment

The question of how to clear a new allotment comes up on forums all the time and I normally chip in on the threads, but I thought it’s about time I produced a comprehensive answer and some personal guidance based on my experience that I can just put a link to it in the future so here it is!

Hurray I have an Allotment, now what do I do?

Normally if you have acquired a new plot the likelihood is that it’s going to be covered in crap and weeds up to four feet tall or if you are really unlucky eight feet of brambles that are hiding a six by eight foot shed at the back of the plot that you didn’t know was there! Yes true story that happened to a plot neighbour who took a plot on I had rejected because it looked like too much work.

The condition of the plot really depends how long it has not been used and if there has been an active waiting list or not. Go back five years 2012 and there were long waiting lists for most allotments due to all the grow it and cook it programs that were on the television. Recently 2017 however in some areas there are less people enthusiastic about taking on an overgrown monstrosity, however if it’s that bad ask you can always ask if you can have it rent free for the first year, I didn’t get my first allotment plot rent free for the first year, but I did the second plot. 
In 2020 due to the pandemic the waiting list have sored on my site we had a waiting list of 6 in March 2020 and by October it was 24. there are only 14 full plots most have been divided into half plots and there are five of us that still have full plots so there are only 23 plots, 2 are not in use because they have Japanese Knotweed. So the people on the waiting list have some time to wait because we only tend to loose 1 or 2 people per year.  

So where do you begin? First thing to remember is that Rome was not built in a day, and neither will your allotment be formed within in a few hours or a couple of days, it takes a lot of work and work takes time and effort.

Working on the plot little and often is the key and make sure that you enjoy the process and experience, don’t let it ever become a chore otherwise you will be one of those that give up within the first 3 months of ownership

First Day
Before you touch the plot, I suggest that you get the camera out and photograph the plot all around from locations you can go back to so that you can take regular photos of your progress and look back and see what progress you have made, because I guarantee you will get to a point where you “hit the wall” as runners say and you will feel like you aren’t making the progress you should be and may feel a little down and despondent, that’s the time to look at the photographs to remind yourself just how much you have actually done.

Plot 1A on Plan

Here was my first plot when I took it over in October 2012 

This was the view from the West Looking East

Take a walk around the plot and look in and see what you’re going to have to deal with if you can, you may be very surprised at what is actually lurking under all the weeds somethings may be useful others will just need to be bagged up and taken to the dump.

Health & Safety

It’s about now you should really be thinking about if your tetanus jabs are up to date, especially with bramble covered plots, as you will get scratched, pricked and cut doing this work no matter how careful you are.

Wearing gloves also keeps the grime out of your fingers because if you get an infection then fingers like to have a bit of a puss party and the solution is lancing and washing out, wrapping up and a couple of courses of anti-biotics. I managed to do this the same week I got my second allotment.

Getting Started

Put on a pair of sturdy gloves and clear an area in one corner of the plot and lay a plastic sheet or tarp down, then start retrieving the debris and sort it into two piles one of stuff that may be useful to keep and the other stuff to go to the dump.

You may be able to do this straight away if the plot is not too weedy or covered in brambles, but if the plot is really overgrown then you may have to start eating your way into the plot and build the piles as you expose the ground and discover what lies beneath.

I kept the terracotta pots in the photo above but all the glass and there was a lot of it some sheets buried under carpet was boxed up and taken to the dump.

If you’ve a lot of tall weeds, then it may be worth borrowing or hiring a petrol strimmer with a brush-cutter blade and taking them down to about 15cm above the ground, leave brambles a little longer – anything up to 60cm.

To clear the plot below I used a combination of normal shears and long handle shears, Secateurs, long handles Secateurs, and a hand scythe

Clearance Progress from October 2012 – January 2013

Clearing & Covering

Some books suggest composting weeds, but not all weeds are suitable for cold composting.

A lot of council run allotments will not allow fires between April and September, but if you are going to stack weeds to let them dry then stack them on pallets to keep them off the ground and allow air flow under the pile, and cover them to keep them dry, but take the covers off when you are working on the plot to allow the heap to breath and dry out more.

I burnt all the weeds using a couple if metal incinerators but if dry enough you could just have a bonfire, making sure there are no hedgehogs or slow worms in residence.

View from the South East corner looking North West Before & After

The carpet in the photo above was there already but has been covered with bindweed; most allotments will no longer allow the use of carpet to be used on allotments due to the risk of chemicals/glues leaching into the soil.

Now that you have been on the allotment for a while you will have looked at other plots and seen how they are managed, these loosely fall into two groups
  • Dig the whole thing over including paths every year
  • Formal structure with an infrastructure of beds and paths
I fall into the formal structure with beds and paths group, and my reasons are, I could not do with clearing the whole plot of weeds every year, battling nature on taking over a plot is quite enough for me thank you very much.

Mentally I can deal with the management of a 1.2m x 2.4m area of land and once cleared I can manure it. Breaking the plot up into areas helps me with crop rotation, I just move everything on four beds each year. I can grow green manure or just cover the beds over with a sheet of weed membrane to deny the weed seed light so they don't grow once they have finished for their year.  

By putting in paths in you effectively reduce the area that will need weeding if your paths are weed membrane, cardboard, covered with gravel, paving slabs or woodchips.

Make beds just wide enough 1.0 to 1.2m so they can be worked on from both sides without the need to stand on and compress and consolidate the soil so that digging in the future becomes easier. I adopt a no dig approach as much as possible, you still need to dig spuds but that means that the hard pan is dug in four beds each year as I rotate the crops.

Make the paths wide enough between the beds so that you can get the bottoms of your legs (knee to foot) in comfort for planting and hand weeding, I originally planned for 450mm wide but rethought and made them 600mm wide which for me is just enough. 

Once the weeds are cleared it’s a good idea to cover the ground so that the weeds die off. You can do this with cardboard and tarps, just tarps, or damp proof membrane, or weed membrane. The objective is to cut off light to the weeds so they die and you are not fighting on all fronts to keep the weeds at bay.

You will soon learn that if there is a drop of rain in the summer and you come back after two weeks you will have a lot of weeding to do in your growing beds.

Damp-Proof Membrane 1200ga Black 4m x 25m (47163) from Screwfix is around £60
Recently I managed to purchase 2m x 50m of Heavy Duty weed membrane off ebay for £24.99 a roll and 5% if you bought a second roll.

The key to making headway on a plot is to not to try and get it all done at once, give yourself a small goal and then you feel a sense of achievement when you've reached it, then set the next goal etc.  Also when you are digging start from a corner and work your way back and get in your infrastructure and beds, it may sound silly but work so that when you look up you see what you have done not what’s still to be done.

Before you know it (six to seven months in from getting the plot) the first six beds and the paths around them are in and you have planted your first crops. In my case I went for potatoes in the first four beds, one bed of earlies. One of seconds and two of main crop potatoes, as the timing was right and they are great at helping in breaking up the soil, and you have to dig those beds again in the same year to harvest them. The other two beds were cabbages and sprouts.

You may recall that the North East end of the plot had been covered in carpet and had been overgrown with weeds.  When the carpet was removed the clay was shiny and looked polished and was set like concrete. It could not be dug with a fork; in fact I broke a fork and had to buy a better and stronger one. I had to take a pickaxe to it in the first instance just to break it up so that I could dig it.

Do Not Rotavate

Whatever you do Do Not Rotavate, yes you can hire a machine and cut all the roots of the existing couch grass into two to three inch lengths, but each one of those cut roots is going to want to continue to live and grow and within a month the whole plot is coved with more weeds than you started with.

With a bramble patch, it’s tough work digging out the roots. Leaving some cane above ground level enough to give you something to pull at!

I don’t recommend digging the plot over in the first instance with a spade or mattock, especially if you have couch grass and brambles. Its best to dig using a fork if possible and easing the couch grass up through the ground like an alien beast being exposed and easing the tentacles that extend in all directions, lifting and vibrating the earth on the fork so that the roots loosen their grip and what’s on top of the fork gets easier to handle, and starts coming to the surface faster, until the mat of weeds that resembles an alien is there for you to lift and you can hold it high in the air like a conquered alien.

OK it all sounds a bit dramatic but that the feeling you experience, when you finally ease a large network of couch grass, or bramble roots out of the ground.

Remember the objective is to remove all the couch grass and brambles that you find whilst digging, there is going to be some you have missed and it will come back but when it does dig around it expose the root system and extract as much as you can.

Digging The Paths

There are books that suggest that you don’t have to dig the paths and that it’s a waste of effort. I can’t agree with that as how can you expect to keep beds weed free when there are weeds in the paths that surround them?  Paths deserve to be cleared the same as the beds to help give you a fighting chance at keeping the weeds under control.

What Kind Of Paths To Use?

The options are down to personal taste and may also depend on what you can lay your hands on and are Soil, Cardboard Grass, Weed Membrane, Timber, Woodchip, Paving Slabs, Pea Shingle.

Bed Edging

The material and form of bed edging is down to personal choice and dependent upon how much you want to spend and what materials you have on hand. You may decide that you want grass paths with an edge and dug bed with no difference in level or you may want to define and maintain an edge, all well and good if you have a way of cutting the grass.

I knew that I wanted to use woodchip for the paths but I needed an edging, so initially I bought some plastic lawn edging and the path and beds were level. I used a portable hoop frame that I had made to use as a jig when using a spade to form the slot to push the edging into. Surrounded the bed with weed membrane and covered in wood chip

I recall a great sense of achievement when the first bed was completed, which spurred me on to get the following ones installed. The plastic lawn edging lasted about two years before it became brittle and I found other materials to take its place.

The industrial estate behind the allotment was being sold off and a window replacement company had loads of plastic trim they were going to skip so I saved it and used it to replace the green corrugated lawn edging.

Next I acquired some timber joist from a demolition job and started replacing the plastic with timber which helps keep the soil in the bed and you can add compost and raise the level slightly.

In the photo above I also acquired some paving slabs which I used on the central main path down the plot. Freecycle is a great resource for all manner of materials and items that are useful on an allotment i.e. Sheds, Greenhouses, You normally have to dismantle and take away,. Compost Bins (Daleks), Water Butts, Blow Away Growhouses, Seed Trays, Module liners, pots and containers, Fruit bushes etc.

On my second plot I went straight in for decking to define the beds and it also allows for me to gradually improve the soil and add compost to the beds. The path in the bottom right corner is for disabled access to my neighbours plot. The slabs for the area next to the shed and the path down the middle were all obtained off freecycle. Weed membrane is cut with a soldering iron to stop it fraying (See Here) and used under the slabs and to keep the weeds down.

I have seen roof tiles come up on Freecycle in the past but had never thought of them for creating bed edging.

The photo on the left is from a thread called Scrapheap Challenge written by Snadger which is a diary or journal about his scrapheap plot that he took over and is developing which I enjoy following on the Grow Your Own forum Grapevine.

I  trust that this article give you enough to get going with your new plot, I will try to expand upon it and flesh it out a little more but for the mean time you can read my dairy from 2012 and work your way through my changing plans and development of my allotment and hopefully learn from some of my mistakes.

Sunday 27 August 2017

Wyevale 50p Seed sale

The Wyevale 50p seed sale is on I arrived at the Dorking branch at just gone 10am and found out that they don't open until 10:30am on a Sunday, so I had a chocolate from the Costa attached to the building which did open its doors at 10:00

Ummmm Chocolate  

I was the first one at the tables and was joint by another couple who have an allotment, after about 10 minutes. I went to the Dorking branch because historically they have had twice as many tables as you see here, but Wyevale appear to be buying less stock and have less left over at the end of the season in the last couple of years. The Morden branch only had a small table and a planting trug of seed packs and I didn't get around to visiting the Croydon Branch this year.  

Despite telling myself not to go overboard I ended up with £170 worth of seed for £25 and most of the sow by dates are 2019 and 2020 and there is even one pack with a sow by date of 2021, I rejected the 2018 packs out of hand, I still have plenty of 2016 & 2017 packs in my seed boxes.

Saturday 26 August 2017

Drop Off and Pick Up Area Update

I was on site early this morning as there was a meeting with Redrow and the Allotments Council Officer and I regarding the formation of the drop off and pick up area.

It looks like we are not only back on track but in fact have ended up with a better specification of works than we originally had agreed, largely due I'm informed by the generosity of Natta Building Company Limited the groundworks subcontractor on the Redrow scheme, who I would like to thank for their generosity, it is much appreciated by all the plot holders especially the special needs allotmenteers who work plots 13, 13A & 14 and come to their plots via minivan and car with their carers and who will now be able to be dropped off in the entrance to the allotment. 

The growth and debris in the area is to be removed and arising's from the demolition are to be laid and compacted and a new timber fence to match that erected between the development is to be erected between the bees on plot 14A and the new area.

A small work party has been arranged to cut a way into the overgrown area create a path and define a line for the contractor to work too when using earth moving equipment to clear and level the area before laying and compacting the risings.  

Friday 18 August 2017

SoilFixer SF60 OWSOE2 Update

Update on the SoilFixer SF60 Overwintering Spring Onions Experiment 2 - 9 Days from sowing

SF60 @ 20% added to the MPC in the bucket on the left and plain MPC (Multi Purpose Compost ) on the right

Both Buckets germinated at the same time, both buckets have 110 Mr Fothergills Evergreen Bunching sown on the left and 110 Suttons White Winter Hardy Lisbon on the right. 

In both buckets the Evergreen Bunching were the first to show on Day 6 with the White Lisbon starting a day later on day 7 but are appearing at a much slower rate of germination than the Evergreen Bunching.

Monday 14 August 2017

Comfrey Pipe Upgrade & Pumpkins

Well you may recall that more than half of the rope from my comfrey pipe weight appeared to have been cut off and removed. I was speculating if it was vandalism or a plot holder?

Last visit there was practically no rope left and this time one could see where two attempts had been made to cut the rope, and the answer appears to be not vandalism but Rats !

So a visit to the old fashioned hardware store, thank god there is still one local, I pick up some bits, got out the trusty soldering iron and made holes in the pop bottle cap for and the plant saucer lid for the ring bolts attached a length of metal chain and I have now replaced the rope well the 100mm that was left still attached to the weight with this;

No more string for the rats to chew off the weight
Hopefully metal is not a tasty as nylon rope!

The self seeded pumpkin is growing at an alarming rate

It appears he is not on his own ! as I spotted this little fellow inside the foliage

In fact I found another three at varying degrees of development under those giant leafs 

Environmental Fair 2017

Sunday 13 August 2017

SoilFixer SF60 Potatoes in Buckets Results

The SoilFixer SF60 Potatoes in Buckets Experiment was planned way back at the end of 2016 when Tony Callaghan the Managing Director of SoilFixer asked me if I would be interested and like to trial some. 

Now if someone wants to provide me with free products to trial, it would be rude to refuse wouldn't it? As long as they understand that you will be impartial and give an honest review and opinion of the product when you blog about it then I'm happy to give anything gardening and allotment related a try. I especially like this kind of trial because the facts and results will speak for themselves. 

The SoilFixer SF60 Super Soil Improver arrived in a plastic bucket with a lid.


I really wanted to start this test off early in the year but due to events outside my control I didn't manage to get the spuds in the Potato Pots until May

From left to right

1) My Own Compost & Coir 50:50

2) My Own Compost & Coir with SF60 @ 5% by volume
3) My Own Compost & Coir with SF60 @ 10% by volume
4) My Own Compost & Coir with SF60 @ 20% by volume
5) My Own Compost & Coir with Potato Fertiliser
6) My Own Compost & Coir with SF60 @ 5% by volume with Potato Fertilizer



In order to weigh the produce produced from two seed potatoes from each variation of the mix, I purchased a 40KG Digital Travel Portable Handheld Weighing Luggage Scales Suitcase Bag LCD for the princely sum of £3.58 inclusive of Postage off ebay so that I can weigh the spuds from the different buckets.   

40KG/10G Model - Max weight:40Kg/88Lb/1410oz
Automatically lock in readings when the data is stable.
Main body use ABS engineering plastic as main materials.
Stainless steel hanging hook. High strength compact firm hand strap KG / LB / OZ / Unit

I managed to pick up six of the Tesco “single use” 5p carrier bags as they are light and will all be the same weight, lucky the small local store still had some as Tesco stop selling them at the end of the month.

My Own Compost & Coir 50:50 CONTROL Mix

My Own Compost & Coir with SF60 @ 5% by volume

My Own Compost & Coir with SF60 @ 10% by volume

My Own Compost & Coir with SF60 @ 20% by volume

My Own Compost & Coir with Potato Fertiliser

My Own Compost & Coir with SF60 @ 5% by volume with Potato Fertilizer

Schedule of results by weight 

0.410kg - My Own Compost & Coir with SF60 @ 10% by volume
0.465kg - My Own Compost & Coir with SF60 @ 5% by volume with Potato Fertilizer
0.480kg - My Own Compost & Coir 50:50 CONTROL Mix
0.490kg - My Own Compost & Coir with SF60 @ 5% by volume (2.08% increase over Control)
0.520kg - My Own Compost & Coir with Potato Fertiliser (8.33% Increase over Control)
0.665kg - My Own Compost & Coir with SF60 @ 20% by volume (38.5% Increase Over Control)

I had expected that the running order at the top of the page would have been the order of results based on weight, I was so wrong. I'm surprised that the 10% by volume and the 5% by volume with fertilizer results are less than the control mix. It looks as if 5% by volume with Fertiliser is better than 10% by volume, however It does not make sense when the Control Mix with Fertiliser produced the second heaviest yield.

What can be said this that there is a 38.5% increase in Yield between the Control Mix and adding SoilFixer SF60@20% by volume   

Schedule of results by Number of edible potatoes 
15 - My Own Compost & Coir 50:50 
18 - My Own Compost & Coir with Potato Fertiliser (including the green one! )
23 - My Own Compost & Coir with SF60 @ 10% by volume
24 - My Own Compost & Coir with SF60 @ 5% by volume
27 - My Own Compost & Coir with SF60 @ 5% by volume with Potato Fertilizer
30 - My Own Compost & Coir with SF60 @ 20% by volume

In terms of quantity of spuds there has been a 100% Increase between the Control Mix and adding Soilfixer SF60@20% by volume

Last year when SoilFixer did their own potato trials they found the extra leaf weight above ground was equal to extra potato weight below,. Where they had 20% more leaf also had 20% more potato crop weight. I didn't weigh the above ground leaf, but I did notice that bucket 4 with SF60 added at 20% by Volume did not dry out as fast as the first three buckets, and that if you inspect the photos above the foliage was higher and more lush and actually lasted longer than the first three buckets.

I could have let Buckets 4 - 6 go a little longer, but I wanted to give all the buckets the same amount of growing time so that the comparison as fair. 

These results are using my own compost without the assistance of the SoilFixer compost humification activator, next year I'm hoping to undertake the same experiment with compost made using the SoilFixer CHA and see what difference that makes when used in conjunction with SF60

I would like to thank Marshalls for providing the Potato Pots and spuds for the experiment / trial.

In the mean time I have some overwintering spring onion in flower buckets trials underway again this time comparing bought compost Vs the same compost with SF60@ 20% with three different varieties on onions.    

Saturday 12 August 2017

August Bank Holiday 50p Seed Sale

It's an annual event that lots of Allotment holders love and wait for, especially those of us that are Seedaholics and that is the Wyevale 50p seed sale.

Now I have to say that Wyevale appear to have got their act together and over the last two years are not over stocking seeds, which may be a good thing for them as obviously seeds are not bought from their suppliers on a sale or return basis, but is not so good for the Allotmenteers because there is not the choice nor the quantity to pick from.

Historically I have been to Wyevale when they have many large tables with packets on them and you can spend quite a time over buying seeds as they are only 50p a pack, they have a couple of years on them according to the use by date, and I'm still using some that were best before 2015, yes you just sow more as the germination rate declines.

Now five years in from getting my first allotment and with three tool boxes of seeds, including all those I get with the magazine which I have stopped subscribing too as the mags are just taking up room, they really don't have much in them that I don't have in the vast array of books that I have and I really don't need seeds for things I will not grow.

I have a different outlook on the 50p seed sale. I'm only going to pick up seed if I have a real need for them or it's a variety that I have not tried before. I hear a voice in the back of my head saying "Really!"  OK Ok I will try and not go overboard.

So if you are about to get an allotment, don't buy seeds at full price buy them in the Wyevale 50p seed sale, from Wilkinsons at the end of season or Lidl at the start of the season next year as they can be purchased at a fraction of the price from gardening centres.

There are a number of Facebook groups that just publish seed suppliers offers and flash sales some where you pay the post and packaging and the packs of seed at 1p per pack.

There are suppliers via ebay shops that again sell seeds at very reasonable rates, whatever you do shop around when you buy your seeds or take advantage of offers when they happen.

Lots of suppliers like Dobies, Marshalls, Mr Fothergills etc have 3 for 2 or 4 for 3 offers, free postage offers but these are normally fear close time limited offers.

I recently I bought a pack of Mr Fothergills Eiffel Spring Onions for my overwintering Onion in Buckets SoilFixer experiment with a RRP £2.35 in the half price sale as they only had 3 packs left at Wyevale and I didn't want to chance not getting them in the 50p sale, Today the Mr Fothergills web site is selling them off reduced by 57% but I would have to pay post and packaging unless its a weekend where they are offering free delivery. 

My Mr Fothergills Evergreen Bunching Spring Onions which normally retail at £1.99 a pack came with my Grow Your Own magazine subscription for free. And my Thompson & Morgan Lilia Onions with a RRP £1.99 but today on their web site are being sold at 99p a pack were purchased for 50p in last years Wyevale Seed Sale. 

So my job in the next couple of weeks is to do the annual audit of my seed stocks and make a list of what I have and what I need and hopefully be more focused in my seed acquisition and expenditure.

I nearly forgot to say, heritage seeds and seed saving circles are a great way to acquire seeds, I have shed loads of tomato seeds last count 75 varieties, I've managed to acquire a load of them from seed circles but this year I bought Rapunzel Tomatoes at a premium because at the time I could only find one supplier in the UK. A month after I bought them a source on ebay had them at half the price and I was a little gutted especially as they were expensive and the germination rate was extremely poor.